Sunday, May 2, 2010

A Further Word About Kugel

My Friday posting was about kugel and how to make it in a healthier way. I'd just like to add a couple of historical footnotes here to broaden our knowledge of what was cooked and when in "the old country."

There seems to be an assumption that kugel, potato kugel in particular, was a staple of Shabbos eating in der heim. Was it? Let me begin by asking how many of you who enjoy a piece of kugel on Shabbos would also enjoy it if it could only be served cold or room temperature? We, today, have available to us, to all of us, the means for keeping food hot on Shabbos. Our stoves can remain on over Shabbos, providing us with ovens/warming drawers. We have stove tops over which a blech can be put. We have a large variety of crock pot type of cookers that can be on over Shabbos. We take hot food on Shabbos for granted. This was not the case for large segments of the European frum population., certainly not all year round.

Stoves in pre-War Europe were coal fed or wood fed. The more time you spent in cooking, the more fuel you had to feed that stove. Those home stoves could not be fed fuel right before Shabbos and remain hot until after the mid-day meal on Shabbos. Some people, those with more money, would have special niches built into the side of the fireplaces they used for heating their rooms, niches that a pot could go into to stay warm. Those fireplaces were larger and before Shabbos wood could be added and the fire banked so that there would be warmth throughout the night and into the next day. That was during cold weather. When the weather turned warmer, such that the house was not being heated, there was no fireplace niche to keep food warm.

Some people would rely on a local bakery for warm food for Shabbos. The fireplaces in these bakeries were oversized, resulting in large baking slots above the fireplace. Many people would bring their pots of food to the bakery before Shabbos to be inserted in one of these slots to keep warm over night. There was a charge for this bakery use, and not everybody could afford it.

Kugels were not wrapped up in foil paper as many are today--ask your grandmother if she had foil paper at home in Europe. The kugels were placed into the cholent to keep warm, for those who had cholent. They were not the consistency of the kugels we see today.

And yes, another method of keeping things warm was to take a hot pot right before Shabbos started and wrap it up in a feather bed. Also not available to everyone, because a feather bed, certainly an extra feather bed, was a luxury.

So, did our ancestors in Europe eat kugel every Shabbos, and we're just continuing their custom? Not likely. Some may have eaten it on Shabbos during cold weather, or maybe not. The "kugels" that ended up inside of a cholent pot for Shabbos did not resemble what we call kugel today, and many of those cholent kugels were not made with potatoes at all, but with flour. The wealthy or well to do had some options that whole swathes of the rest did not have. And in the hot weather months cold food on Shabbos was the rule and hot the rare exception.

Yes, kugel was made in that Europe of long ago, but it was not the "rule" to serve it on Shabbos and more people didn't have it than had it.

And speaking of cold food, let's keep in mind that they did not have today's modern refrigerators to keep food in. Those with money would have ice boxes--metal boxes into which slabs of ice were placed to keep food from spoiling until it could be eaten. And getting that ice cost money. Some, outside of the large cities, had underground storage cellars into which produce could be put. So even cold food on Shabbos might be a misnomer. A lot of what our ancestors ate was room temperature, and limited in scope.

Funny how in der heim so rarely resembles in fact the stories so many tell about it, people who were never there.


Anonymous said...

Very true. We also have to remember that "the old country" encompassed many regions and countries and covered a large area with different traditions and different foods available and things like iceboxes becoming available at very different times.
My grandparents came from Russia some time in the early part of the 20th century. They were teens and most of the cooking they learned and foods that became their traditional foods were what jews in NYC ate. The only food that was truly traditional for them was borsht, chicken soup, matso balls and latkes. They didn't make potato kugels or chulent.

Tzipi said...

On a heritage tour back to Europe we visited the small towns where our parents grew up and were able to see some of the houses where the Jews lived in those towns. Even today you can't call those modern kitchens and they were much worse 60-100 years ago. A lot of them weren't kitchens at all in the way we think of them. Where my mom grew up the kitchen was a stove outside with a pump to the well for water. I remember my mom telling me that the only hot food they ate on Shabbos was on Friday night because they would wrap the soup kettle into blankets.

Anonymous said...

I'm a little confused. I thought everyone slept with feather comforters in that time period. Wool would have been very expensive for blankets so I can see how not everyone could afford that. If not everyone had feather comforters what did they sleep with?

ProfK said...


Some of them slept under sacks filled with straw gathered from the fields. Many of the mattresses of that time period were also filled with straw.

Anonymous said...

Tzipi -- I also bet you didn't see two separate stoves or ovens, two separate wells/dish washing areas, etc., and because all clothes had to be hung on a line to dry, no one worried about not hanging out undergarments where members of the opposite sex could see them.

Lion of Zion said...


my son's babysitter was just telling us friday night about how when she grew up in poland they slept on straw (changed once a year for pesach)

as far as warming up foods, i don't know how they did it, but i assume there must have been ways. the literature of early poskim is full of material on warming up food on shabbat.

my grandmother was an orphan (with typical stories like walking in snow without shoes, etc.). the first time she remembers eating meat was when she came to america (about 8 years old) and there was a wedding for other new arrivals in the immigrant detention center.
anyway, she used to make a few kopecs to pay for schoolbooks by delivering the cholent that people would store overnight in the baker's oven. i also read about this practice, i think in hugo mandel's memoirs of life in a turn-of-the-century south german village (a quick and easy read and highly recommended)

Lion of Zion said...

it's funny. most controversial jblog posts about kugel concern the person, not the food. :)

Anonymous said...

Maybe the reason there is a lot of misinformation, as well as some romanticizing, is that many immigrants did not want to talk about what they left behind because it was too painful. My grandparents never discussed the old country, probably because of the pain of leaving family behind pre WWI, and many I know of my parents and grandparent's generation who left due to the holocaust obviously had other reasons for not discussing what came before life in America.

mother in israel said...

My mother insisted that the proper way to serve kugel was at room temperature. And since she was close to fanatical about food safety (as readers of know), that is a powerful statement.

Shaindy said...

Mother, was your mom from Europe? It may be that she was used to room temperature kugel and that no one got obviously sick when eating it so she knew it was safe based on that. But the US government does not recommend serving dishes containing eggs at room temperature because to get that way they have to stay out of the refrigerator for a time period that bacteria could start to grow on the food. It's the same reason why they also don't recommend leaving any foods like potato salad out at room temperatures for a few hours because of the eggs in the mayo. Not everyone gets sick when eating these foods but the chances increase a lot that someone will get sick.

Mr. Cohen said...

Top 20 Most Healthy Foods
from David Zinczenko, year 2007

Almonds, Avocado, Barley, Berries (raspberries, blueberries, strawberries), Black beans, Broccoli, Cantaloupe, Eggs (this may mean the white part only), Kiwi fruit, Low fat yogurt, Mango, Oats and oatmeal, Olive oil, Quinoa, Salmon, Spinach and kale, Sweet potato, Tomatoes, Turkey, Wheat germ
To receive quick quotes from Jewish Torah books, go to:

Anonymous said...


The difference between kugel and potato salad with respect to food safety is that the eggs in kugel are fully cooked, while the eggs in potato salad (mayonnaise) are not. Because the eggs in the mayo aren't cooked, they must be kept refriegerated to prevent food poisoning. But eggs in baked foods such as kugels don't spoil quickly, which is why food safety experts are not concerned about cakes, cookies, or challahs kept at room temperature for extended periods of time (even though these foods often contain eggs).

mother in israel said...

Yes, my mom was born in Europe and arrived in the US as a child in the 30s.
I agree, cooked eggs are not problematic. In my climate, though, I can't leave kugel out.

Mayo is overrated as a safety hazard. If you went away for a week and opened your fridge, which would you eat: the leftover tuna (w/out mayo) or the mayo? Mayo is full of preservatives, and even homemade has lemon juice/vinegar that keeps it stable. The problem with raw eggs is salmonella, and there are signs that the egg is spoiled if you watch out for them.

Ruth said...

Mother, the study a few years ago that showed that mayo was not as much of a problem as it was thought because of the vinegar in it, also said that foods made with mayo should not be left out at room temp for more than one hour because most of the foods the mayo is mixed with are non-acid and there's not enough acid in the mayo to protect the food in warm temperatures. They specifically mention potatoes, tuna and egg salad made from cooked eggs.

Another thing which is being looked at is that dry food, like most breads, cakes, cookies, pretzels etc. are less at risk for bacterial poisoning of any kind precisely because they are dry, not just because any eggs in them have been cooked. Moist foods are more at risk for contamination and provide a better medium for bacteria to grow. So no, kugel should not be left out at room temperature, particularly when that room temperature is in the summer or on warm/hot days. And neither should moist potato salad or any of the other foods like that.

In the US last year there were about 2 million cases of salmonella poisoning and about 11 million reported cases of food poisoning or food related illnesses, not counting allergic reactions. That's not counting those who might get an upset stomache after eating but don't see it as possibly being a kind of food contamination. Who knows how many millions more got just a "touch" of food poisoning and didn't report it. This is one area where it really is better to be safe than sorry and to handle food correctly when it comes to temperature.

mother in israel said...

Ruth, thanks for sharing those interesting statistics.
That's my point about the mayo--the fish or hard-boiled eggs spoil more quickly than mayo. And yes, bacteria love moisture.

I even made up a chart:

Anonymous said...

This made me hungry. And I can eat potato kugel at any temperature.